The Crazy Science Of Road Rage Explained

The Crazy Science Of Road Rage Explained

No matter how calm of a person you are, driving has a tendency to bring out the worst in us. Perhaps it’s the personal armour of being in a steel case on wheels, but road rage feels different than regular old rage. Let’s take a look at why that is.

Car accident picture from Shutterstock

We’ve talked a lot about managing rage in the past, but like video game anger, road rage is its own special beast. Traffic can induce tantrums even in the most calm among us.

Unlike normal anger, you can’t leave, zone out, or take a break to de-stress. When you’re in your car, you just have to continue paying attention. Plus, there are all kinds of stresses that can lead to road rage. Perhaps you’re just having a bad day. Sitting in unmoving traffic makes you realise just how much of your life is slipping away while you’re waiting in a line. Road rage evokes something totally different that’s because it puts us in uncommon situations.

We feel anonymous in cars

We know that anonymity makes antisocial behaviour a little easier because of an effect called “deindividualization.” In short, deindividualization is when a person loses a sense of individual identity. This can happen when you’re anonymous, or when you’re a part of a large enough group that it’s hard to pinpoint you as an individual. Traffic facilitates both of these situations pretty well, and this can lead to more aggressive behaviour.

Being in a car, of course, doesn’t make us anonymous, but we’re also not face to face with another person. When we’re driving, we’re surrounded by others in a group, but we’re also enclosed in our own shell. In short, when we’re in traffic, we feel less human. This series of studies produced by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, measures anonymity and a driver’s likelihood to honk. The studies concluded is that people were less likely to honk at another driver if they were in a convertible where the honker could actually see them. This was further shown in a study where a curtain blocked out the driver, similar to how tinted windows would. When the people behind the driver holding up traffic couldn’t see them, they honked quicker than when they could. Basically, if you can see another driver as an actual human being instead of a hunk of metal, you’re less likely to honk.

This anonymity can also mean that as drivers, we’re more likely to do things we wouldn’t normally do. Cut someone off? Sure, why not? They’re never going to see you again. Speed through a neighbourhood? Sure, you don’t live here.

We can’t communicate with other drivers

Another way we feel less human is the fact we can’t communicate with each other. Sure, we can use a handful of signals to attempt to communicate with other drivers, but it’s a one-way line of communication. This inability to talk upsets us more than you’d think. Writer Tom Vanderbilt explains how this works in his book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do:

Being in a car renders us mostly mute. Instead of complex vocabularies and subtle shifts in facial expression, the language of traffic is reduced — necessarily, for reasons of safety and economy — to a range of basic signals, formal and informal, that convey only the simplest of meanings.
Even formal signals are sometimes hazy: Is that person who keeps driving with their right turn signal on actually going to turn or have they forgotten it’s still blinking? Unfortunately, there’s no way to ask the driver what they mean. This may lead to a rhetorical outburst: “Are you going to turn or not?” But you can’t ask, nor would there be a way to get an answer back…

Being muted and unable to communicate makes us mad. When one driver cuts off another, it’s perceived as rude, but there’s no way for the offended driver to defend themselves. We don’t even have someone to complain to about the problem, because usually we’re alone in our cars. So, we get angry, because we have no other outlet. That leads to all sorts of behaviours we wouldn’t normally do, like following that person closely and riding their tail, honking at them, speeding up to cut them off, or taking it out on the next person we see. That’s not to mention the fact we usually get irritated and shout in our car.

The affect heuristic causes us to make snap judgement based on emotion

The affect heuristic is a mental shortcut where we rely on emotions to tell us when something is good or bad. Essentially, we have a first impression of a situation, then we tend to stick it with it regardless of new data. We make snap judgements and don’t think much about them beyond that. We do this all the time, but as Wired points out, this potentially has an impact on how we view traffic because that first impression is never updated.

When you see someone in traffic do something stupid, your first reaction is usually to call them an idiot. If they cut you off, you don’t think about why they cut you off. Maybe they were avoiding debris. Maybe there’s an accident on the side of the road. Maybe you were just sitting in their blind spot. Which is to say, try to remind yourself that it’s a person in that car and there’s a myriad of reasons as to why they’d make the mistakes they make.

The affect heuristic prevents those possibilities from ever crossing our minds, so we end up being illogically upset. Essentially, another reason we get road rage is because we’re not thinking about why other people do what they do, we only think about how what they do makes us feel.

When we follow the rules, we hate when people break them

Driving has rules and the only reason most of us get where we’re going safely is because most of us follow those rules. There’s a moral order to driving, and when we see people break those rules, we get upset.

Speaking to that point, BBC Future points to the anger induced by cyclists on the road, but their argument can apply universally to anyone who’s breaking the rules of the road:

Deep within the human psyche, fostered there because it helps us coordinate with strangers and so build the global society that is a hallmark of our species, is an anger at people who break the rules, who take the benefits without contributing to the cost. And cyclists trigger this anger when they use the roads but don’t follow the same rules as cars.

We’ve all collectively agreed on a set of rules and when people break those rules, it makes us angry. In this case, BBC Future is referring to cyclists rolling through stop signs or ignoring traffic lights, but the same goes for drivers who do the same. Ever get mad because someone hops over onto the shoulder on the highway to bypass standstill traffic? It’s the same thing. If we’re on the road and we have to follow the rules, we want everyone else to also.

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